Sun Devils' playpen
A quick glance around Arizona State University's campus in Tempe--where a majority of the 40,000-plus student body appears to be minoring in tanning--and it makes sense why the school's mascot is the Sun Devil.
The 160,000-person town's hub is Mill Avenue, which runs alongside the campus and offers everything a student needs: trendy nightclubs, shops specializing in T-shirts (with self-defining statements, like "Protestor"), and restaurants at all price levels (undergrad, grad student, and visiting parents). On neighboring University Drive, Restaurant Mexico serves authentic central Mexican cuisine; the frijoles de la hoya (spicy bean soup) has helped more than one student recover from a hangover. Come dinnertime, Four Peaks Brewing Company, hidden behind an industrial park a half-mile east of campus, offers well-above-average pub fare, but what brings people back are the microbrews: Don't miss the 8th Street Ale. A little dressier, and popular for date night, Caffe Boa has a nice array of pastas, and a huge wine-by-the-glass list.
Tempe is only 10 miles east of Phoenix, but there's enough culture to make it a destination in its own right. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1959 (completed in 1964), ASU's landmark Gammage Auditorium has a striking round facade that looks like it's draped with red sandstone curtains. Valley Art movie house screens indie films in a grand old building. Phoenix-based chain Zia Records has an outpost in town with a particularly strong selection of albums by local bands made big (among them the Meat Puppets and the Gin Blossoms).
When major acts come here, they play at the amphitheater in Tempe Beach Park, at the edge of Tempe Town Lake. Planners in the landlocked area blocked off a dry riverbed using a pair of rubber dams, then filled the thing like a two-mile-long bathtub. Now egrets, cranes, and the occasional pelican have a new stop on their migration routes. Swimming is not allowed, but Rio Lago Cruise Company, on the south side of the lake, rents four- and six-person electric cruisers, as well as kayaks.
On the northern edge of town, Papago Park surrounds the zoo and botanical gardens. The park has 8.5 miles of hiking trails dotted with saguaro cacti. South Mountain, 13 miles south of campus in Phoenix, is one of the world's largest city parks, covering more than 16,000 acres and including mountain biking and hiking trails. The easy, three-mile Hidden Valley trail takes two hours and recalls the landscapes of John Wayne movies.
Whatever the season, ASU has pretty good sports teams and a handful of stadiums; Barry Bonds, Reggie Jackson, and Jake Plummer are all alums. Even on the rare sellout, it's still possible to get a ticket at the gate (scalping is legal in Arizona).
One of the best places to stay near Mill Avenue is the Fiesta Inn. All 270 rooms are done in a simple, Southwestern style, with mesa prints on the wall, colorful throw pillows, and stained-glass lanterns. An added perk is a $2 discount on the $7 pass into ASU's recreation complex, which grants access to tennis courts, a weight room, and two Olympic-sized outdoor pools.
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